Greenhorn Garden | Friends of Clark County in SW Washington
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Greenhorn Garden

Greenhorn Garden

Greenhorn Garden

Growing food for the first time during the Pandemic

By Bianca Benson

Like many people, our family endeavored to grow food for the first time this year.  To be honest we have been working up to doing so for the last 5 years but the pandemic gave early winter garden plans special meaning and inspired a sense of urgency.  We knew we had to start small.  During those five years we have been slowly clearing our woods and marginal spaces of invasive species, mostly blackberry, with little more than a herd of goats, machetes, and a weed eater.

Besides some wild woods we suffer from a low producing well and deal with water scarcity the way wise people might deal with getting low on spending cash.  When the storage tanks get low we slow down our spending and tighten our belt.  Actually, the stay at home order has encouraged our water misering.  Working and schooling from home have allowed us to cut back on showers and stretch the acceptable amount of days we wear the same outfit, affectionately known as our “uniform”.   And while cooking and cleaning up three meals a day has strained our water storage we resort to eating on pizza tins with waxed paper liners.  It’s a good alternative to paper plates and feels like we’re eating out.

The 5 acres we purchased was mostly wooded and sloped.  We have a nice size meadow that is home to a drain field so there is no full sun, level ground in which to plan a garden.  Between this fact and our low water situation it gave us pause to planting anything.  But the will to learn along-side our second-grade daughter was motivating.  Over the years we added a barn cat, (we don’t have a barn) ducks and chickens to the animal collection.  Then we had to get ourselves a herding dog.  Years of browsing, munching, scratching and pooping our animals reclaimed quite a bit of space. We have also removed a few dozen trees that were either dead, dying or too close to our home. With all the blackberry domination and forest management our place was becoming a blank canvas.  With the new space and plenty of goat poop, dreams of gardens began to take hold.  Through researching Permaculture practices, we learned that we could produce food in the woods!  My husband was most interested in raising trees and together we decided on giving Paw Paw a try.  Last fall we purchased a dozen and planted them along the sunny side of our wood lot. With the help of some friends at Lupine School we inoculated several dozen logs with shitake and oyster mushrooms.  With all the blackberry and ivy chocking out the trees anything that fell was swallowed up and went about decomposing. Because we wanted use of the woods for enjoyment, play and planting we recently rounded up all the material buried it creating  hügelkultur that will become a future tree nursery.

We felt like we were on our way to learning a thing or two but still needed to sort the problem of where to plant vegetable crops and how we would irrigate them. We already have good sources of fertilizer but needed to find a way to start plants and trees without using our household water.  As luck would have it a neighbor was selling a water storage tank for cheap.  We already have 1,000 gallon holding capacity in our garage the well tinkles into, but we needed rainwater storage to germinate seeds and water young trees.  In February we installed the new 500-gallon storage tank alongside our little prefab greenhouse. By May 1st is was full.  It has remained full all spring while seeds grew to transplanting size.  I had participated in a seed swap at a neighbor’s house during winter and received all kinds of great stuff, another stroke of luck.  When the stay at home order was handed down from Gov. Inslee, we obeyed.  A trip to a big box nursery was out of the question and leaving home in general seemed totally unnecessary so we went about using what was on hand.  With threats to the food supply chain getting the greenhouse full of tiny plants became a little of an obsession.  So with the seeds from the swap, all the containers we could borrow or find around the place and our collected rainwater we germinated salad greens, tea flowers, medicinal herbs, brassicas and spring annuals for the full sun area near the greenhouse.  We selected varieties that were drought tolerant and are hoping for the best.  I am fascinated by how some varieties seem to thrive in our heavy clay-goat amended soil, like calendula, and others just sit there looking frozen in time like the salvia. In all my research I have been most excited about growing food without irrigation, a.k.a dry farming.  According to this publication from OSU Extension Service, it is possible to not only grow food in our area without water but produced better-tasting vegetables! We have planted a test garden on the northeast side of the wood lot which gets about 3 hours of sun a day.  We will see what type of yield we will get from non-irrigated shady potatoes!

One Permaculture principle that has guided us is, “using small and slow solutions”. By not going headlong into large building projects or major land renovation it has allowed us to observe the natural rhythm of the land over the years while making changes that naturally took a long time to achieve, (and hundreds of goat entertainment hours later).

I’m glad to see other newbies growing food.  It will be interesting to see what works and what doesn’t. Who keeps it up when things return to semi-normal. It’s a beautiful and delicious distraction and one that seems pretty good for us. One thing is for certain, we have had plenty to keep us busy while we stay at home.